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German city removes statue of late Cardinal following abuse allegations

Cardinal Franz Hengsbach, who died in 1991, is the first German cardinal to be accused of abuse
A photo of the now removed statue of late Cardinal Franz Hengsbach of Essen erected near the cathedral is shown in this undated photo.

A photo of the now removed statue of late Cardinal Franz Hengsbach of Essen erected near the cathedral is shown in this undated photo. (Photo: Nicole Cronauge, Diocese of Essen)

Published: September 26, 2023 05:36 AM GMT
Updated: September 26, 2023 05:41 AM GMT

A prominently placed statue of the late Cardinal Franz Hengsbach has been removed in the western German city of Essen. Allegations of abuse against the bishop who founded the Essen Diocese were made public by the diocese Sept. 19.

Work to remove the statue began at 7 a.m. local time Sept. 25 and lasted an hour, according to a spokesman for the diocese. Photos published online showed the statue being hoisted onto a truck with a crane. The cathedral board had decided in a special meeting Sept. 22 to remove the sculpture, which was close to the Essen Cathedral.

Cardinal Hengsbach, who died in 1991, is the first German cardinal to be accused of abuse.

The Essen Diocese said there were suspicions that the cardinal may have abused a 16-year-old girl in the 1950s when he was an auxiliary bishop in the nearby Archdiocese of Paderborn, and that a woman also had accused him of abusing her in 1967 when he was bishop of Essen -- a job that he held for 33 years, according to The Associated Press.

The allegations were first reported in 2011 and 2022. The fact that they were only made public a few days ago triggered renewed accusations that the Catholic Church in Germany, shaken by the abuse scandals in recent years, was unwilling to investigate abuse.

It also led to calls for public places bearing his name to be renamed and for the Essen monument to be removed.

The statue by the German sculptor Silke Rehberg was unveiled in October 2011 by Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen, the current head of the diocese, who said Sept. 22 that he had seen no reason at the time to refrain from erecting it based on the information that was available then.

Before the decision to take the statue down, Rehberg had spoken out against such a move.

"That would be the wrong thing to do," she told the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper. It would be more in keeping with the "bad tradition of the church" in dealing with abuse. Instead, the statue should be turned upside down, she had added.

Cardinal Hengsbach has remained popular to this day as the bishop who founded the Essen Diocese. For more than three decades, the churchman had distinguished himself above all as a supporter of the miners in the industrial Ruhr region. At a time when numerous coal mines were being shut down in the Ruhr area, he appealed to industry and the government to provide social compensation for the workers affected. Cardinal Hengsbach also was the German military bishop for 17 years and founded the Catholic Latin American relief organization Adveniat.

Two other German prelates who have been accused of abuse are: the late retired Bishop Emil Stehle (1926-2017), ordained as a priest of the Archdiocese of Freiburg who served as a bishop in Ecuador and was the managing director of the charity Adveniat; and the late retired Bishop Heinrich Maria Janssen of Hildesheim (1907-1988).

The diocese did not disclose the nature of the alleged assaults, saying it wanted to protect the privacy of the victims.

In 2011, when abuse accusations surfaced against Cardinal Hengsbach regarding his alleged abuse of an underage teenager as early as 1954 when he was an auxiliary bishop, the case was not considered plausible by the Vatican.

However, during the latest investigations, the allegation was reexamined and found to be credible, the Archdiocese of Paderborn said in a separate statement Sept. 19. It said a woman had stated that she had been sexually abused by then-Bishop Hengsbach together with his brother Paul, a priest, when she was 16 in 1954.

The brother, who died in 2018, vehemently denied the allegations. The two brothers were ordained to the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Paderborn.

According to the archdiocese, the claim against the brother also was deemed implausible in 2011, but with today's focus on the church's abuse crisis and after reexamining Father Paul Hengsbach's personnel files, this earlier assessment "must unfortunately be clearly called into question."

"I understand there are some who have come forward, but I don't know yet how many," Bishop Overbeck told the regional public television broadcaster WDR Sept. 24.

On Sept. 22, the bishop of Essen conceded he had made mistakes in dealing with the case of Cardinal Hengsbach.

"For a long time, I could not imagine that something like this could have been done by a cardinal and bishop, and moreover by my predecessor as bishop of Essen," Bishop Overbeck said Sept. 22. The shock also was so great because Cardinal Hengsbach had been an important and popular figure. "But the facts now speak a different language and so I also had to react accordingly," Bishop Overbeck said.

Actually, before the 2011 claim allegedly involving an underage teen surfaced, a year earlier, in 2010, another woman had made allegations of abuse against him. This case also was classified as inconclusive and never submitted to Rome. However, after a complaint and a reexamination of her case, the woman received compensation payments from the church in 2019 in recognition of her suffering.

The other claim made in 2011, of alleged abuse against an adult woman in 1967, was withdrawn in 2014 at the request of the accuser, the Diocese of Essen said. The person had stated that the account had been false due to blurred memories. The case was thus considered closed.

Bishop Overbeck said Sept. 22 that in view of the new accusation made last year, and taking all the information into account, he decided to make all accusations against Cardinal Hengsbach public.

He said he was aware of what this would trigger in many people who remembered Cardinal Hengsbach as the esteemed founding bishop of the Ruhr region diocese. "In view of the present accusations, it is important to me to encourage possible further victims to come forward," he said.

The Archdiocese of Paderborn was critical of its own actions. "If the two accusations concerning (Father)Paul Hengsbach had been considered together at the time, this might have led to a different assessment of the accusations in favor of the two women concerned," it said in its statement.

"Thus, from today's perspective, it is obvious that the women were not only wronged by the experience of abuse by diocesan priests of the archdiocese, but also suffered as a result of the way they and their legitimate concerns were treated," the archdiocese said.

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